Apple's cloud storage service is more than just a backup utility.
Just as it's important to store invoices, contracts and family photos in a safe, secure location in your home, it's crucial that you store your digital documents with the same eye towards preservation. If you lose your phone or drop your iPad in the middle of a bustling street, you don’t want all your recorded videos and personal notes vanishing into the ether.
To ensure that doesn't happen, it's worth taking the time to set up a digital backup plan using a service like Apple's iCloud. iCloud separates the fate of your personal files from the fate of the device they're stored on, giving you peace of mind that a dead phone doesn't mean dead memories.
What is iCloud?
iCloud is a digital backup service available on Apple's iOS and macOS devices as well as Windows PCs. It is designed to preserve your important files on Apple's servers in case something happens to your device, plus it keeps all your files and settings in sync across multiple devices so you can switch seamlessly from one to another.
How does iCloud work?
To make use of iCloud's backup and syncing services, you first need to set up iCloud on the relevant device(s).
For iOS devices, you'll need to make sure you've updated to the latest version of iOS, then open up the Settings app and select iCloud. Once you've entered your Apple ID, you can select what files you want to be automatically uploaded and downloaded through iCloud.
On Mac, iCloud can be enabled through the System Preferences menu option, and you can select the files to automatically upload and download through iTunes. On PC, you'll need to download the iCloud app, sign in with your Apple ID and designate the files to upload and download to iCloud through the app.
Once set up, iCloud can automatically back up and sync a variety of files and settings across your devices. These include:
iCloud maintains a photo library of every photo and video you take on all your devices. When you edit photos or videos in your iCloud photo library, those changes will be reflected on any device you access your library with. You can also share select files or folders with your family and friends, allowing them to view and even edit your photos and videos if you so wish.
While all your music purchases through iTunes are already attached to your Apple ID, music that you have purchased elsewhere isn't. With iCloud, though, you can upload non-iTunes songs, like those you've ripped from CDs, to your iCloud music library and listen to them on any iCloud-connected device.
Mail, contacts, calendar, reminders and notes
iCloud integrates with all of Apple's built-in iOS apps, backing up and syncing your emails, your contacts, your calendar events, your reminders and your notes from their associated Apple apps.
iCloud supports a feature called iCloud Keychain, which remembers your usernames and passwords for different websites and apps so you don't have to re-enter them when you switch devices. iCloud Keychain uses AES encryption to keep your passwords safe, and each device you want to use with iCloud Keychain must be manually approved by you to help prevent unauthorised access.
Full device backup
iOS devices set up with iCloud are automatically backed up overnight (provided they're connected to Wi-Fi), saving you from having to remember to back them up manually each and every night.
If you ever need to restore your device from an iCloud backup, first make sure a recent backup exists by navigating to Settings > iCloud > Storage > Manage Storage and looking at the dates on the backups listed. Once you've confirmed a recent backup exists, go to Settings > General > Reset and select "Erase all content and settings". All the existing data will be wiped from your device. When that's finished, go to the Apps & Data screen and select "Restore from iCloud Backup". Sign in with your Apple ID, select the backup you want to restore and iCloud will take care of the rest.
For personal documents, work material and any other files not covered by iCloud's app integration, iCloud Drive is the answer. It serves as an online repository for any files you want accessible across all your iCloud-compatible devices, with the ability to start editing a file on one device and continue editing it on another. This is ideal for when you need to quickly shift from your desktop computer to your portable device.
You can also designate specific folders on your devices to be automatically synced with your iCloud Drive, ensuring any changes you make while offline are immediately uploaded when your device gets back online.
What else do I need to know about iCloud?
While it won't cost you anything to start using iCloud, you will be limited to 5GB of storage space shared across all your devices. If you find you need more room, you can upgrade to 50GB of storage for $1.49 a month, 200GB for $4.49 a month or a whopping 2TB for $14.99 a month.
As handy as it is to have all your files stored in a single location, you'll want to keep in mind the security and accessibility concerns associated with this approach. Apple promises high levels of encryption on all files stored in iCloud, but many other companies have promised the same prior to suffering a security breach and letting unauthorised users access their customers' personal files. Security can never be perfect, so just remember that anything you store in iCloud could potentially be accessed by malicious parties.